Drama and the Brain

Drama and the Brain

By: Yoko Morimoto

Editor’s note: A Fuji-sized thank you to David Kluge for interviewing Yoko and working it up into an article for us.

Before you start reading this, click this link to a TED talk given by Dr. John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He’s actually very famous for his studies on the treatment of depression, ADHD, and improving the quality of education through exercise. Step away from the computer and do what he tells you for the first one minute and ten seconds. Click!

Are you ready to learn? Chances are you are readier now than you were before you watched the video. No, this is not a reprint of the Think Tank Exercise issue, but a completely new issue on Drama and the Brain. In this article I will present some background information on mind and brain research regarding drama, tell you my language learning experience, and introduce a few drama activities that are based on brain/mind research.

Principles from NeuroELT and Drama

In this issue, David Kluge outlines some basic research on mind/brain research and drama. I would like to add a few things regarding neuroELT, which is “a new interdisciplinary field within the fields of Applied Linguistics and Educational Neuroscience . . . It is at the convergence of neuroscience and English language teaching, thus “NeuroELT” (Fab Conferences, n.d.). Specifically, I would like to address a set of 50 dicta devised by Robert S. Murphy, called Murphy’s Maxims, based on neuroscience. The particular ones that are relevant to drama are:

1. “Emotion” drives learning.

Emotion is a central piece in any drama. You perform, or you show a film mainly because you want to make your audience feel something. If it’s just a documentary, if students get the information, that’s maybe good enough, but in drama you want to make your audience feel something very deeply, be it humor or anger or sadness or surprise or tension. You want the experience to touch people’s heart in some way. And in order to make that happen, actors and performers need to really get involved with the emotions of the character.

3. “Cognition” is context dependent.

Context is a key word in drama. Without the context, usually drama doesn’t happen.

13. “Choices” fuel learner motivation.

In drama, learners have lots of choices to make, like how to move, how to walk, what kind of expressions they put on their face, what kind of tone of voice they want to use. They must choose which play, which scenes they want to play, or which characters they want to play.

24. "Performances of Understanding” are essential for good assessment.

Performances could mean just at the end of the class when you summarize what you have learned to the rest of the class or to the rest of the group members. But of course, in drama, you actually perform what you have learned constantly

29. "Varying" helps recall.

When you rehearse drama, every single time, you may be saying the same line, but every time you say it, or do it, it varies. And that helps people recall what is said.

30. "Creativity" delivers us from ruts.

Good drama must be creative and interesting.

31. "Surprise" me; surprise yourself.

Surprise is an important part of drama.

33. Decide upon "top-down" and "bottom-up" teaching ratios.

Of course, if the teacher is a director, maybe there is a lot of top-down teaching involved, but oftentimes students practice on their own, and they direct themselves in drama so there’s also bottom-up process going on.

34. "Personalize" the content to captivate students.

Again, by personalize I mean, each person can bring their personality into the character. Okay, every actor plays the same role quite differently by modifying the character’s background or the script.

37. "Healthy" bodies make healthy brains; healthy brains make healthy bodies.

All these exercises and movements help you become healthier. So, it’s not a sport, but it’s almost like doing some sports activity.

38. Establish "Active" break times.

In drama, we often have warm-up activities that involve lots of moving, such as walking around, miming, and so forth, and they can serve as energy/brain breaks.

40. "Spice" up your classroom by engaging other senses.

In a traditional language classroom, we often utilize mainly visual and audio input. However, in drama, you will be moving your hands, touching, and even smelling things.

41. Encourage "mistakes”; celebrate mistakes.

In drama, performers need to repeat lines many times to learn them and act. And in the process, everybody makes mistakes. Everybody forgets their lines, and it’s a given.

42. Teach for the "DATC.”

DATC is the Dynamic Area of Total Convergence, the sweet spot for learning at the convergence of the socio-cultural, linguistic, and non-verbal areas. This overlapping area is touched on by many drama activities as drama certainly contains socio-cultural, linguistic, and non-verbal components.

46. Shy does not mean introvert; introvert does not mean shy.

Some people may think that drama is not for introvert personalities but oftentimes, I’ve been very surprised positively by the transformation of students who are very quiet, but once we get into drama activities, some of them really thrive, as if the flower just pops out of a bud. Drama can be quite a liberating experience for some introverted people, as they feel free from the limited framework of their own personality and identity.

47. Collaboration boosts levels of cognition.

With the exception of a monologue, drama involves a lot of collaboration.

Welcome to My World: My Story of Language Learning Through Drama

Yoko learning French through drama in France.

Ten years ago, I started going to France between semesters, and took classes in language schools. I’m afraid to say I was not able to develop fluency. I had spent maybe six or seven months in intensive language lessons. And I got more and more frustrated with my slow progress and expensive French classes. You know, they all were very nice; the teachers were nice, my classmates were nice, but I was really frustrated. And I felt like, oh, I cannot keep spending all this money, either. And then, I found a drama school in Paris where we started with some warm-ups, lots of exercises, visualizations, even meditation and mindfulness exercises.  They fit in very well with all those theories of a good learning process, and I enjoyed them both as a learner and as a researcher. I finally found that I could quickly improve my French. This led me to the conclusion that using drama techniques to teach language was a good approach.

Drama Activities Based on NeuroELT

Based on my drama school experience, I started teaching English through drama using neuroELT. Here are six activities I used in my classes:

    1. Warm-up: Breathing from your belly imagining it is a balloon
    2. Voice and articulation
    3. A-I-U-E-O Articulate from your belly
    4. Add Consonants to the Vowels (Th, V, B, L, R, Tr, etc.) For example “tha, thi, thu, the, tho”
    5. Practice Words (THesis, THese, Victory, Beavers, Light, Right, Train, etc.)
    6. You-Me, repeating quickly for 30 seconds, accelerating the speed
    7. Throwing an imaginary ball to group members arranged in a circle. You call out the color of the ball and the receiver calls out the color when s/he receives it.
    8. Walking/Counting. A game of individuals counting aloud while everybody is walking, taking care two people do not say the same number at the same time.
    9. Walking with varied emotions. The group walking as if feeling the emotion that the leader calls out.
    10. Short Monologue “I’m home” said in a variety of situations

(Taken from and/or inspired by “Le Foyer” drama school classes, Paris, 2015-8) More detailed descriptions can be found in Morimoto (in press).

"both their teacher and neuroscience confirm that drama is a good way to learn a language."
Yoko Morimoto
TT Author


Two felicitous events, learning French in a French theatre school and being introduced to neuroELT, combined to help me form my approach to language teaching. Drama techniques informed by neuroELT principles produced an effective, active, and fun way to teach and learn languages. In addition, I have learned that I not only teach the activities, I also explain why I am teaching this way by actually teaching the neuroscience behind the activities. I hope the students understand that both their teacher and neuroscience confirm that drama is a good way to learn a language.


Yoko Morimoto completed her MA in TESOL at Columbia University. Since 1990, Yoko has taught at Meiji University, Tokyo. Her interest is in Mind, Brain and Education (MBE), using Drama and Performance in Education, Group Dynamics, Autonomous Learning, Cooperative Learning, and teaching presentation skills. Recently, as a French learner, she attended a professional drama school in Paris.

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